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  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

Limitations of Kantian Ethics

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Introduction: The Limits of Kantian Ethics

“Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you

do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!”

Winston in George Orwell's 1984

In 1961 Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem for his role in the deportation and extermination of hundreds of thousands of European Jews. Reviled for his crimes during the Holocaust, Eichmann surprised the court by declaring he had attempted to live by Kant's moral principles.

What? How can Kantian ethics be claimed by someone responsible for killing so many innocent people? Does some fatal flaw allow for it? No, not at all. You can't blame Kant for Eichmann. Not even close. I want to make that clear upfront. But still, Eichmann's assertion intrigued me enough that I decided to look deeper into what Kant had to say about ethics.

How did he view the role of duty in his ethical philosophy? What about the categorical imperative and the "Kingdom of Ends? And how does this all work in the real world? As I'll show, not very well. I'll use a few historical examples to illuminate the stark contrast between theory and practice. What emerges is a system filled with limitations.

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Kant's Moral Philosophy: Duty Rules

In Kant's Metaphysics of Morals (MoM), "Duty is that action to which a person is bound. It is therefore the matter of the obligation." [1] Put another way, duty is the obligation of doing something (" which a person is bound") out of respect for some law. The law can mean a couple of things here, specifically between lawful duties (juridical or legal) and duties required by virtue.

Juridical (or external duties) are those that some outside authority compels us to obey. Laws, rules, and regulations are examples. If I only honor a contract for legal reasons, I exercise a juridical duty because external obligations force compliance.

But suppose I honor the contract because I deem it the right or honorable thing to do, with no outside compulsion making me do so. In that case, I obey a more abstract ethical legislation without external obligation. For an action to have moral worth, it must originate out of duty. Also, the moral value of an action does not depend on the outcome but on the motivation in which somebody performed the act. [2]

Did you act because it was right, never mind the outcome? Or was a desired result the primary motivator?

Kant admits that motivation driven by desired outcomes (honor, self-esteem, acceptance, glory, etc.) may have positive results. Still, they count for less morally because they were not motivated by any selfless sense of duty.

In the first section of The Groundwork, Kant describes a man who is naturally inclined not to help others in need. He just doesn't give a shit. Despite having such a cold-hearted character, "…he nevertheless tears himself from this deadly insensibility and performs the action without any inclination at all, but solely from duty – then for the first time his action has genuine moral worth." [3]

Philosopher Karen Stohr uses this little story to critique Kant: "The problem with the cold-hearted benefactor, then, is not that he has duty as a motive; it is that he has duty as his only motive." [4]

Another American philosopher, Michael Stocker, offers a specific scenario to show what's lacking with this hyper-focus on duty. Suppose your friend visits you in the hospital, not out of friendship or genuine concern for you but only out of obligation. Your friend is indifferent to your plight; only a sense of duty brings him to your bedside. [5]

Yet, Kant might say your friend is performing his duty (visiting you) perfectly, despite his complete indifference. Most would intuit something missing in your friend's behavior, a chilling lack of empathy and the sense he is just going through the motions of what he ought to do, not want he wants to.

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The Categorical Imperative: A Quick Summary

How can a person of good will recognize those duties demanded by virtue? In short, by universalization.

What duties can we universalize? In The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (GMoM), Kant distinguishes between two types of imperatives: hypothetical and categorical. While all imperatives express what ought to be done, hypothetical ones have an end in mind; if you want to accomplish something, you must do X.

If a woman wants to be healthy, she must exercise and eat well. Here, she pursues a subjectively desired goal, better health, which the hypothetical imperative articulates as the objective. This imperative often relates to a desire to improve happiness or well-being.

But happiness for Kant was too indefinite to represent the universality demanded by the second imperative, the famous categorical imperative. Since subjective goals that define happiness will vary from person to person, they fall under different criteria; they can therefore never be more than hypothetical imperatives. You can't universalize them to apply to everyone everywhere.

Kant expands on this meaning: "And thus the imperative that refers to the choice of means to one's own happiness, i.e., the precept of prudence, still remains hypothetical; the action is commanded not absolutely but only as a means to a further purpose." [6]

Put another way, hypothetical imperatives presuppose the method required (diet and exercise) to reach an objective (eat less to lose weight). They express subjective values and must therefore vary endlessly.

Categorical imperatives, however, express ultimate universal laws transcending time and space. That makes them independent of the personal and subjective factors governing hypotheticals. They are moral commands applying to everyone universally and unconditionally.

The categorical imperative comes in three parts.

1. "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become a universal law of nature through your will." [7].

2. "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means." [8]

3. "Act in accordance with the maxims of a member legislating universal laws for a merely possible kingdom of ends, which remains in full force, since it commands categorically." [9]

What makes an imperative "categorical?" Mainly, we can universalize it to avoid the contradictions you have from subjectivity. Think of it this way: When deciding whether an action is moral, see if it meets the universalizing standards of the categorical imperative.

For example, take the maxim, "It is permissible to break promises." Can this become a universal law? No, it can't. Universalizing this maxim would negate the moral value of promises, making them worthless. Therefore, it's not morally okay to break them.

Now here's where duty enters into the equation. Kant believed that only duty is an authentic, unimpeachable categorical imperative. We must always do our duty. This can be universalized, or at least Kant thought so. Duty presupposes the rules we must all follow for society to function.

That all sounds straightforward enough.

It's in the application where problems arise.

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That Time Dereliction of Duty Saved the World.

The problem is the impossibility of clearly defining duties dictated by the categorical imperative because of the indeterminacy of its formulation and interpretations. The universal moral necessity (categorical imperative) of doing one's duty works until you try getting specific. Then it becomes easy to conjure one-off hypotheticals where ignoring duty is correct given certain circumstances. I don't need to dream up hypotheticals. History has concrete examples.

In September 1983, Soviet Lieutenant-Colonel Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer at the main command center responsible for detecting a nuclear attack from America. During his shift, the early warning system detected the launch of six ICBMs from the US. As far as he knew, that's what was really happening. The satellite data said so.

Nevertheless, he ignored standard protocol and did not immediately report this to the high command because he believed the information was false. He was right. But suppose he had sent this up the chain, as required. In that case, the Soviet high command might have ordered a counterstrike against this imaginary American attack, forcing the Americans to respond in kind. Result? An accidental nuclear war with tens or hundreds of millions dead. The danger was greater because this incident happened only three weeks after the Soviets had ordered the shoot-down of Korean Airlines Flight 007, erroneously believing it to be an American spy plane.

Tensions were already high and the Soviet leadership's ability to exercise sound judgment (LTC Petrov exempted) had proven questionable. They had shown a willingness to shoot first and ask questions later. Petrov's brave initiative and good judgment possibly averted an all-out nuclear war. Yet technically, he was guilty of gross dereliction of his (juridical) duty. He didn't cold-heartedly do his duty no matter the outcome. He didn't follow the established protocols. By not doing so, he may have saved the world. In this case, disobedience was the moral thing to do, though it would never pass the categorical imperative test. Fortunately for us, he wasn't a proper Kantian.

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Benjamin Constant vs. Immanuel Kant: Truth at All Costs

That's just one example I can think of right now. The reader no doubt can think of others where dereliction of duty was the right call. This reveals flaws in Kant's categorical imperative. After all, it's not always possible to take theories that appear logical in the pages of a philosophy book and apply them to the messy contradictions of real life. It's that old chasm between theory and practice. Finding universal maxims able to overcome every contingency is a challenge Kant never convincingly overcame.

Still, he believed he had identified the worst violation of the categorical imperative, even worse than disobeying orders. In The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue (MPoV), "The greatest violation of man's duty to himself considered only as a moral being (the humanity in his person) is the opposite of veracity: lying." [10] Lying was wrong because it transgressed universal moral law. One can never universalize a lie into a moral stance.

As an abstraction and absent any concrete situation, it's easy to say lying is always wrong since we can't universalize it. But is that really true? Difficulties arise when conducting even the most straightforward thought experiment based on a scenario where lying was the optimal choice to achieve the best result, or at least the lesser of two evils.

In 1797, French philosopher Benjamin Constant offered a pointed criticism of Kant's unconditional demand to tell the truth. Kant's response exposed a cold and rigid undercurrent lurking in his ethics. You would think Constant's critiques would make Kant see the limited range of his categorical imperative.

Yet, in a short essay responding to Constant, On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, he left no doubt where he stood. Here's Constant's thought experiment: A stranger wants to murder a friend of yours. Your friend comes seeking shelter. You let him hide in your house. When the stranger shows up looking for your friend, he asks, "Is he here? Tell me where he is. I'm going to kill him."

What do you do? Do you lie to protect your friend from death? No, not according to Kant. You can't do that if it means lying, not even to save his life. [11]

Something felt off about this and Constant wasted no time zeroing in on it. He counter-argued that the killer forfeits his right to the unconditional truth in such a situation since his intent is malicious. There is no duty to total honesty when it will kill or injure others. Lying becomes acceptable because it prevents more significant harm: Here, the worst of all, murder. For most of us in a similar predicament, the apparent "moral" choice would be to lie to save our friend. Indeed this is preferable to the Kantian imperative of truth at all costs.

But responding to Constant's challenge, Kant doubled down and defended his unbending claim that lying is always wrong, including in a situation where another's life is at stake. He tells us this in no uncertain terms: "Truthfulness in statements that cannot be avoided is the formal duty of man to everyone, however great the disadvantage that may arise therefrom for him or any other. And even though by telling an untruth I do no wrong to him who unjustly compels me to make a statement, yet by this falsification, which as such can be called a lie (though not in a juridical sense), I do wrong to duty in general in a most essential point" [12]

Kant accepts that duty is injured by lying, and this, in turn, harms the liar. He lamely attempted to defend this incongruous assertion by disingenuously shifting the conditions of the original thought experiment to insert uncertainty.

How can we know lying would save your friend? Maybe the stranger would still find and kill him, despite your lie. Or perhaps the friend had already escaped and did not need your lie to save him? Or, while standing aside after dutifully telling the truth, allies come rushing in at the last minute to stop the killer. Reading a philosopher of Kant's stature stoop to such weak deflections is painful. [13]

In fact, he has backed himself into a corner by the absurd logic of his argument. If he asserts that duty compels honesty, the killer only has to ask you which closet your friend is hiding in; duty demands you tell him. And so your friend's murder is facilitated by your dutiful honesty. What kind of person would do this?

Christine Korsgaard summarizes Kant's position: "Physical coercion treats someone's person as a tool; lying treats someone's reason as a tool." [14] If you lie to the murderer, you offend their reason. Okay, but the question remains whether that is worse than allowing murder, which, I might add, disobeys the categorical imperative.

I guess the moral of the story is that if you're getting chased by a killer, don't hide in Kant's house.

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Kantian Ethics Applied to Reality (A): Kamenev's Choice

But if this is not convincing, consider a few historical examples that illustrate the ethical minefield many navigate when confronted with extreme situations. Sometimes lying is the only reasonable option.

In the 1930s, as Stalin consolidated his power, millions of Soviet citizens were arrested on trumped-up charges and forced to sign false confessions before being executed or shipped off to the gulags.

The arrest and torture of Lev Kamenev, one of the "Old Bolsheviks" from Lenin's days, illustrates the overwhelming pressure to lie under relentless interrogation. These interrogations were usually accompanied by physical and psychological torture until the accused signed off on a laundry list of imaginary crimes against the nation and the Communist Party. Truth in any objective sense was never the goal, far from it. Truth became Orwellian, defined not by reality but by ideological expediency.

Kamenev's fate was the same as millions of others. He broke down and confessed in the end. What choice did he have? There was never a happy ending for Stalin's enemies, real or made up.

He had two options: He could confess to all of the false charges and then throw himself at the mercy of the state. Then his family would be protected, and only he would suffer the consequences for his illusory crimes.

Or, he could nobly deny the charges, insisting on his Kantian duty to the truth. But then the NKVD would arrest and execute his son. [15] After they killed his son, they would finish their dirty work by torturing Kamenev until he broke. Once that happened, (and it would eventually happen), and once they obtained the signed confession, they'd blow his brains out in some dark basement cell. Perhaps his last thought would be of his dead son.

What was the right play here for Kamenev? To insist on the truth while knowing that doing so would get his innocent son killed? No way. In his situation, coercive state power defined truth; it also controlled reality like O'Brien controlled Winston's in 1984. What would any loving father do when faced with the same choice?

The millions who disappeared in Stalin's purges faced similar choices: lie now, or suffer torture until forced to lie later anyway. It was a helluva choice.

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Kantian Ethics Applied to Reality (B): Jewish Collaborators

Consider a second, more morally ambiguous historical example. After World War II, Sections 10 and 11 of Israeli law dealing with the punishment Nazi collaborators contained provisions covering extenuating circumstances. Hannah Arendt notes this clarification distinguished the actions of the Jewish' Special Units' from those who, like Adolf Eichmann, chose to commit their crimes under no real threat of harm.

We know the Nazis tasked these Jewish prisoners with rounding up other Jews in the ghettos for deportation. Or, they tasked them with more macabre responsibilities like enforcing discipline in the death camps or herding new arrivals into the gas chambers. In return, they were temporarily spared the same grisly fate as their victims.

They became cogs in the Nazi extermination machine to avoid being ground up by it. Or, put more skeptically, they let themselves become cogs. The extenuating circumstance law provided a Jew who had collaborated with the Nazis a reasonable chance of acquittal if the court could determine they had acted "in order to save himself from the danger of immediate death." [16]

Nevertheless, despite the legal exculpation they received, questions lingered about whether their actions were ethical. Was it right to help the Nazis commit genocide if it offered hope for self-preservation? Is it not better to die with a clear conscience than to participate in such atrocities?

Would not the categorical imperative tell us that by helping the Nazis, the collaborators allowed themselves to be the means to an end (genocide), and by actively assisting in crimes against humanity to save their own lives, they were somehow partly to blame? Were they in any way morally culpable for actions that smack of cowardice?

Such are the incredulous questions from people who have never faced such an awful choice between physical or spiritual annihilation. The will to live, no matter the cost, is powerful. People with full bellies and who sleep in warm beds should probably withhold judgment.

But many fellow Jews who hadn't lived through the Holocaust didn't. Faced with this damning combination of Jewish passivity and collaboration, Arendt tells how the perplexed prosecutor in the Eichmann trial asked witness after witness, "Why did you not protest?" and "Why did you board the train?" and "Fifteen thousand people were standing there and hundreds of guards facing you – why didn't you revolt and charge and attack?" [17]

The implied judgment in those damning questions hints at an instinctively offended sense of morality, perhaps not in a Kantian sense, but in a sense that inaction and collaboration were in some ways guilt-worthy, or at least lacking in virtue.

I can't answer those complex issues here but only bring them up to highlight how difficult one finds it to apply unbending moral principles of black and white, right and wrong, when all of the options appear to violate moral law to one degree or another.

Situations like these almost defy ethical categorization, particularly for those who understand nothing but life under the protective umbrella of liberal democracy. In conditions like those endured by the victims of totalitarianism, we find Kantian ethics collapsing from the harsh reality of legalized, coercive violence.

Predrag Cicovacki points out the seeming difficulty in reconciling Kant with the contingencies of the real world: "An even more serious kind of anomaly, seriously threatening to the formalized foundations of Kant's moral system, occurs when strict adherence to our rights and duties leaves us powerless in the face of evil, and seems even to contribute to it." [18]

This criticism has merit, given the various ethical dilemmas people face that defy strict Kantian categorization. Nevertheless, a selective reading of the great German philosopher can offer the reader a more sympathetic view, hinting at warmth and compassion lacking elsewhere in his writing.

In The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue (MPoV), he explains the duty to love our neighbor: "The duty to love one's neighbor can also be expressed as the duty to make the ends of others my own (as long as they are not immoral to my own). The duty to respect one's neighbor is contained in the maxim, degrade no other man merely as a means to personal ends (do not require another person to throw himself away in order to pander to one's own ends)." [19]

This aligns with the categorical imperative's second formulation to treat others as ends, not means. In MPoV, Kant promotes a duty to be beneficent, a duty to respect others, and a duty of gratitude. [20]

These argue against the charge that Kantian ethics don't work well in the real world. Kant's intent was not to create a cold and emotionless moral system but to establish an a priori foundation for morality, independent of our experience and an eternal, consistent standard to govern our actions.

Still, the Groundwork reminds us of the fundamental importance of duty in these discussions of virtue: "For love as an inclination cannot be commanded; but beneficence from duty, when no inclination impels us and even when a natural and unconquerable aversion opposes such beneficence, is practical, and not pathological, love." [21]

Doing the "right" thing should apply to everyone, whether they are inclined to that behavior or not. But as we have seen, sometimes there are situations where identifying what's right is impossible. By arguing for morality grounded independently from empirical experience, Kant's logic led him to conclusions that lack sufficient flexibility for dealing with real moral dilemmas.

This gives his ethics a "sunny day" aspect that does not include the full range of possible human experiences. It can only work well in a society of like-minded individuals, which we know does not exist. It might function in a free community where most follow the same benign maxims. But that is hardly the universal social reality for most people throughout history.

If anything, the horrors of the twentieth century show us what happens when an authoritarian regime decides it wants to impose its ethical standards. If political authority operates on principles inimical to freedom, love, and mutual respect, as the totalitarian regimes most certainly did, then the scope for an individual to practice Kantian ethics is fatally compromised.

The categorical imperative's rigid application provides an intellectual mechanism for determining right and wrong without the necessary leeway to decide blame based on circumstance. As Calder rightly points out, "Nothing about Kant's view of degrees of blameworthiness hangs on the nature of wrongdoing which is entirely appropriate since doing wrong and being blameworthy for wrongdoing are two very different things." [22]

Such a valid point gets to the heart of the matter when we learn about the terrible ethical dilemmas faced by the Lev Kamenevs of the world. The rigidity we find in Kant goes against our natural common sense in situations like these. Our intuitions tell us we should be able to discriminate between various types of wrongs, recognizing some as more egregious violations of morality than others.

Thus, a sadistic torturer or a murderer using victims as means to satisfy violent ends should be deemed morally worse than someone who makes a contract they have no intention of honoring. The problem is Kant's system does not unambiguously articulate that this degree of difference exists.

In one way, Kant was correct. In his Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, we are told, "Every man has a conscience and finds himself observed by an internal judge, who threatens him and keeps him in awe (respect combined with fear). This authority watching over the laws within him is not something which he himself (arbitrarily) creates, but is incorporated in his being." [23]

The End of the World  by Jose Gutierrez Solana, 1932
The End of the World by Jose Gutierrez Solana, 1932


Kantian Ethics Applied to Reality (C): Do Nazis Have a Conscience?

Kant may have been on to something. Conscience intuitively guides us to the right course of action. Curiously, we encounter it in the most despicable human beings.

For instance, Himmler's words to the commanders of his S.S. death squads: "To have stuck it out and, apart from exceptions caused by human weakness, to have remained decent, that is what has made us hard…. These are battles that future generations will not have to fight again….The order to solve the Jewish question, this was the most frightening order an organization could ever receive." [24]

It's hard to notice, but there's a faint nod to moral conscience in those words, even if they are slathered in blood and cruelty and light years from anything Kant had in mind. Himmler's saying that history will vindicate their genocidal crimes, however horrible those appeared at the present. Mass murder was a necessary evil (means) to achieve a better future (ends) where such actions would not be required.

Solving "the Jewish question" now would bring peace and prosperity later. In Himmler's own warped way, he believed his work was for the greater benefit of humanity, or at least in his Aryan definition of that term. It was a down payment in blood for future generations. But the Nazis didn't invent this mindset. They inherited it.

This is not as ridiculous as it first appears. Think about it, how often in history has this been true? The mighty Pax Romana emerged out of similar levels of mass murder in Gaul, Hispania, Dacia, and Britain. And so was the settlement of the North American continent, by the way.

No one remembers the victims now as anything other than silent footnotes in history buried under shopping malls and parking lots. The winners write the stories and invent the myths while the losers rot nameless in mass graves or float up into the sky as wispy puffs of smoke belched out of death camp crematoriums.

So have your moment of silence, if you must. It changes nothing.

Himmler was tapping into a long tradition where mass violence in the present moment rewrites reality and erases memory for the future benefit of the winners. It also soothes the conscience of the perpetrators who might feel some nagging bit of remorse for their crimes. Yet posterity will not remember the details, the exact nature of the crimes, the specific murders, and the mayhem that made it so. Myths turn villains into heroes and victims into props for those stories.

In this way, Himmler's death squads were somehow brave to have "stuck it out" in executing the "frightening order" to exterminate the Jews. They were performing a long-term plan to benefit the German people; this was all that mattered in his mind. In a hundred years, no one would remember the crimes if they covered them well enough, only the collective benefit they brought to their tribe. They'd get streets and schools named after them.

This is duty too, but only in a very diabolical sense. But this is not duty in any way Kant would recognize since it violates the categorical imperative's rule to treat humanity as an end rather than a means. Nazis were not known for that. Kant concludes his discussion on conscience: "In his utmost depravity he can at most bring himself to the point where he no longer heeds it [conscience], but he cannot avoid hearing its voice." [25]

Indeed, even those paragons of evil, Himmler and his Einsatzkommandos, occasionally heard its voice, if only as a whisper.

Kant wasn't naive. Looking at the French Revolution of his era, he had some idea of what people could do to each other. He sought to conceive a just and ethical society for its citizens that wouldn't birth moral monsters Robespierre and Himmler.

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Kant's Kingdom of Ends: A Vision for a Just Society?

So far, we've looked at how Kantian ethics applies to the individual. But what about zooming out and extending that to an entire society? What did Kant have to save about that?

He envisioned a community where individuals could conduct themselves according to the categorical imperative, with all actions governed by the universal moral law. He understood people are social creatures and need interaction. In this way, Kant posits his ideal society, his "kingdom of ends," ruled by rational beings interacting and all obeying pure moral law.

He wrote, "By "kingdom" I understand a systemic union of different rational beings through common laws." [26]

In this ideal community, "…duty does not rest at all on feelings, impulses, and inclinations, but only on the relation of rational beings to one another, a relation in which the will of a rational being must always be regarded at the same time as the legislative, because otherwise he could not be thought of as an end in himself." [27]

If this sounds unrealistic, Kant would have agreed. Such an ideal could only exist as something aspirational we should strive for. However, people are not always rational beings. Indeed, they operate by "feelings, impulses, and inclinations."

Also, many are inclined to pursue the personal end of happiness, often at the expense of everyone else. For Kant, the swirl of competing desires and inclinations requires some overarching principle to uphold a just society based on respect, reason, and justice. The only way to achieve this "kingdom of ends," absent the conception of an ultimate authority such as God, is to obey the universal moral law. So how did he intend to implement such a kingdom of ends?

In his essay, Concerning the Common Saying: This May be True in Theory But Does Not Apply to Practice, Kant provides some tantalizing details on the optimal relationship between man and state. As the title of the article states, this was his attempt to answer the criticism that his philosophy was only valuable as an ideal and not in any way practical for real-life situations.

In some ways, Kant was ahead of his time in calling for the basic tenets of our modern liberal democracy, like personal freedoms, equality under the law, and a free press. In his ideal commonwealth, wealth and status are not determined by heredity but by each individual's liberty to pursue personal interests as long as they do not conflict with his categorical imperatives.

Put in Kant's own words: "From this concept of the equality of men as subjects in a commonwealth the following formula is derived: Every member of a commonwealth must be able to reach every level of status in the commonwealth which can belong to a subject and which [he can achieve] by his talent, his industry or his good fortune. No subject may stand in his way as a result of hereditary privilege and thus keep him and his descendants down forever." [28]

Most people living today would be hard-pressed to denounce such a government. After the bloodbath of the French Revolution, Kant hoped the age of monarchs was drawing to a close and Europe's future would consist of republics of free citizens.

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Kant's Kingdom of Ends: Some Problems

Nevertheless, when reading everything here in the proper context, those laudable opinions just mentioned are once again contradicted by Kant's rigid focus on duty and obedience, two traits praised by Soviet commissars and Nazi stormtroopers alike. He called for blind submission to the state, no matter how depraved it may be.

When juxtaposed with a few more historical examples, it again shows the limits of Kant's ideas when contrasted with the real world. He asked: What should the citizenry do when the government makes a bad law that will cause unhappiness? Is it permissible to resist? The answer, he tells us, is that the citizen has to obey, including when the political authority is oppressive.

He goes further by saying, "We are not interested here in the happiness of the subject supposedly resulting from the institutions or the administration of the commonwealth but are interested only [in the law which is to be secured] for everyone by this institution and administration." [29]

This hearkens back to his discussion of happiness in The Groundwork, where he argues that it is too indefinite and subjective to use as a baseline for morality. Duty, again, is paramount, and the citizen must always obey political authority.

Kant essentially hands a blank check to the ruler to do as he pleases. "From this it follows that all resistance against the supreme legislative power, all instigation to rebellion, is the worst and most punishable crime in a commonwealth because this destroys the foundation of a commonwealth. The prohibition (of rebellion) is absolute." [30]

Society can never stabilize into a peaceful equilibrium if rebellion is a constant threat. One can sense in Kant's writing the looming shadow of the French Revolution and the chaos it unleashed. Rebellion is disobedience. These lead to anarchy and violence, which are bad for everyone. Political instability is riskier when society comprises free, autonomous individuals intent on pursuing their own ends. Sometimes those ends collide and a referee is needed. The price for stability and avoiding these collisions becomes complete submission to the state. Yet, unconditional obedience can prove absurd when applied to a real-world example.

On 20 July 1944, Count Claus von Stauffenberg and three other conspirators were lined up along a wall at the Army headquarters in Berlin and executed by firing squad for their roles in a plot against Hitler. The crime was high treason. Such was the grisly end of the last attempt to overthrow Hitler's regime.

These men were motivated to revolt in response to Germany's deteriorating military situation, convinced that Hitler's leadership was leading Germany to catastrophe. When Stauffenberg was about to be executed, he shouted: 'Long live sanctified Germany!' In Stauffenberg's final words lay a deeper expression of duty, not anymore to a failing Nazi regime, but to his ideal of Germany. A mixture of patriotic duty (as he defined it) drove the more idealistic conspirators like Stauffenberg to take the risks they took. While their timing and motivation are questionable, they acted to overthrow a corrupt and evil regime.

According to Kant, however, those conspirators acted illegally, even if a more despicable and terrifying regime is scarcely imaginable. Kant is unbending: Citizens must obey laws, regardless of the circumstances. Nalin Ranasinghe notes this chasm between Kant's ideas and reality: "Kant…seems oblivious to the threat of authoritarianism and the value of heroic example in the struggle against a totalitarian world picture." [31]

Kant nevertheless wrestles with how free citizens should deal with a criminal government. Here, Kant displays a perplexing level of naiveté and shows just how much a creature of his milieu he was. Perhaps with the relatively enlightened Frederick II of Prussia in mind, and not Robespierre, Kant wrote, "The non-resisting subject must be able to assume that his ruler does not want to do him injustice, for every man has his inalienable rights which he cannot give up even should he want to and concerning which he is entitled to form his own judgments." [32]

We know today that assuming the best about your leaders can get you killed. If they are committing crimes like those of Hitler, Mao, Putin, and Stalin, we should dismiss the presumption this is happening because of benign intent or supreme wisdom. If rebellion is not possible in such extreme cases, then a fundamental flaw exists in Kant's philosophy.

Sven Arntzen argues that Kant offers some scope for resistance. In his view, since the government's respect for individual dignity is a condition for being an obedient subject, violating this dignity (i.e., the person is a means for the ends of the state) compromises the legitimacy of political authority. In this way, we can see a roadmap for resistance. [33]

Arntzen is attempting to reconcile the contradictory parts of Kant's philosophy. On the one hand, Kant speaks to the duty of love and dignity; on the other, you have his political principles that prohibit resistance. [34]

We cannot reconcile the two, at least not without ignoring or downplaying certain things Kant wrote. Once again, this highlights the gap between ideal and reality. Individual dignity and respect are laudable goals, which, to be fair, Kant supports, but by precluding resistance to evil political power, he leaves those same goals vulnerable to totalitarian tendencies. Even the most well-thought-out ideas need some built-in flexibility to manage extreme circumstances.

The implications of this inflexibility are damning, especially given the examples of abuse of power already presented in this essay and what those abuses mean in the undermining of morality.

When authoritarian regimes have free rein to control the minds and bodies of their subjects, it should come as no surprise when many of those subjects begin to sync their personalities to fit the regime's ideology. However, those who do not accept state-sanctioned dogmas often find themselves in situations where Kantian ethics provides few viable options.

Then, whether as the victim or the perpetrator, individuals in these regimes find themselves unable to adopt the rigid and unrealistic principles Kant proposes we use to govern our ethics. In other words, reality overpowers ideals and therefore invalidates those very ideals as a system that can provide practical answers to the whole range of life's contingencies.


Final Thoughts: Eichmann, Again

Adolph Eichmann's claim he had tried to live his life according to Kant's principles presents a case study of what happens to one's moral bearing when duty and obedience become the primary driving motivators of behavior, forcing out the more humane elements.

At his trial, Eichmann acknowledged that he ceased living by Kantian principles when he began participating in the Final Solution. Yet he consoled himself with the belief he was no longer in control of his own actions.

What struck many about Eichmann was just how ordinary he was. He was not a monster by birth but by circumstance. Eichmann could have gone either way on that razor's edge that separates victims from perpetrators in totalitarian regimes.

Such was the man who could bellow righteous indignation when describing Nabokov's Lolita as 'quite an unwholesome book' while simultaneously consigning innocent people to gruesome deaths. By emphasizing duty over emotions and obedience over justice, Kant's ethical philosophy reveals itself as impractical when transposed from the realm of the fluffy ideal to the world of brute reality.

The morally hazy nature of lived human experience leaves us grappling with how to make the best of whatever situation we find ourselves in. Ultimately, life is an art, not a science, and we cannot reduce it to a series of principles like a math equation. Despite his invaluable legacy in philosophy, Kant, in the end, did not understand this.


Eichmann on trial
Eichmann on trial


Supplementary Material



[1] Immanuel Kant. "The Metaphysics of Morals in Ethical Philosophy." Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 1994. 223.

[2] Ibid., 220.

[3] Immanuel Kant. "The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals in Ethical Philosophy." Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 1994. 398.

[4] Karen E Stohr. "Virtue Ethics and Kant's Cold-Hearted Benefactor." Journal of Value Inquiry 36.2-3 (202): 190. Print.

[5] Michael Stocker. "The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories." Journal of Philosophy 73, no. 14 (1976): 453-66.

[6] Immanuel Kant. "The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals in Ethical Philosophy." Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 1994. 416.

[7] Ibid., 416.

[8] Ibid., 429.

[9] Ibid., 439.

[10] Immanuel Kant. "The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue." In Ethical Philosophy, 429.

[11] Immanuel Kant. "On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns." In Ethical Philosophy, 425.

[12] Ibid., 426.

[13] Ibid., 427.

[14] Christine Korsgaard. "The Right to Lie: Kant on Dealing with Evil." Philosophy and Public Affairs 15.4 (1986): 325-49. Print.

[15] Orlando Figes. "The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia." New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007. 248.

[16] Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem. London: Penguin, 2006. 91.

[17] Ibid., 11.

[18] Predrag Cicovacki. Kant's Moral Philosophy. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2002. 390.

[19] Immanuel Kant. "The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue in Ethical Philosophy." 450.

[20] Ibid., 450, 453.

[21] Immanuel Kant. "The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals in Ethical Philosophy." 399.

[22] Todd Calder. "Kant and Degrees of Wrongness." The Journal of Value Inquiry 39 (2005): 233.

[23] Immanuel Kant. "The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue," 438.

[24] Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem, 105.

[25] Immanuel Kant. "The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue," 438.

[26] Immanuel Kant. "The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals," 433.

[27] Ibid., 433.

[28] Immanuel Kant. Basic Writings of Kant. New York: Modern Library. 422, 8:292.

[29] Ibid., 426, 8:298.

[30] Ibid., 8:299.

[31] Nalin Ranasinghe. "Ethics for the Little Man: Kant, Eichmann, and the Banality of Evil." Journal of Value Inquiry 36.2-3 (2002): 313.

[32] Immanuel Kant. Basic Writings of Kant. New York: Modern Library. 430, 8:304.

[33] Sven Arntzen. "Kant on Duty to Oneself and Resistance to Political Authority." Journal of the History of Philosophy 34.3 (1996): 424.

[34] Immanuel Kant. "The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue,"462.


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